The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species, survival systems and operations, equilibrium.
– Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!
This month is different because I left Chicago—it’s the first time in six years I wasn’t in Pilsen for the Fourth—to study for a month in the Naropa Summer Writing Program. The point isn’t that I’m fancy (I’m not; I saved up!), it’s that this place is wonderful so I want to be your Mina Harker. (Or for you to be her yourself. Here’s the archive.)
This column is different too. I’m still in Boulder. I decided to write you from here, even though I need to turn in my portfolio soon eek, because I like the idea of book-review-as-postcard. I am writing you now, before I get back and set this experience against Chicago’s meat and concrete and home. I didn’t want to write starry-eyed, and I didn’t want to write retrospectively. I just want to show you some books I read while I was here, because I found them, living in a city where the sky—not the neighborhood—is what centers.
My constraints were that I couldn’t write about anything I had to read for class, and I couldn’t write about anything I’d heard about before. To sort that out I started taking selfies—these snapshots below—on lunchbreaks in the Ginsberg Library. I thought I was taking these pictures for myself, but in class yesterday I realized I was taking them for this column. Fragments are a good way to show reading for research and pleasure while on deadline (dovetailing with what Carl Wilson says about poetry here). Plus these are personal because each one represents something I copied into my notebook, or otherwise Felt Very Near and Dearly.
Next month will be same as before—your regularly scheduled MAINTENANCE. If there’s something you’d like me to read, or read about, let me know: mairead dot case at gmail dot com.
Publications discussed here:
+ Heavenly Breakfast: an Essay on the Winter of Love by Samuel R. Delany (Bantam, 1979)
+ Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices by Dylan Thomas (New Directions, 1954)
+ Civil Disobediences, edited by Lisa Birman and Anne Waldman (Coffee House Press, 2004)
+ Margery Kempe by Robert Glück (Serpent’s Tail, 1994)
+ I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time by Kristin Prevallet (Essay Press, 2007)
+ What’s With Modern Art? by Frank O’Hara, edited by Bill Berkson (Mike and Dale’s Press, 1999)
+ “A poem for record players” by John Wieners (1958)
My first night, I walked to Pearl Street to buy a sandwich and something to read. Missions help. I found Trident and bought this book, which is also an essay, because this introduction here made me feel like I’d swallowed a rock and needed to cry. Heavenly Breakfast is the commune where Samuel Delany lived, on the Lower East Side in 1967-8, and also his band. Babies lived at Heavenly Breakfast too, one bathroom didn’t have a door, folks “balled” a lot, and the kitchen was for guests, meals, practice, and the bathtub. “If you’ve ever indulged the fantasy of being invisible,” Delany writes, “you’d probably like commune life.” Heavenly Breakfast is clean, quick, and gripping, not so much a book about rock bands and sex as it is holding space, and living together in the in-between.
Under Milk Wood is a radio play about the dreams people have in a small Welsh fishing village. It starts and ends at night, with some day in the middle. Characters include Mae Rose Cottage, a teenager who draws circles on herself in lipstick, a constable who pisses in his helmet, and Organ Morgan, who has nightmares about orchestras. The book is unified by time and music—reading it aloud at random, and again, is a great way to practice deep listening. (Or to make a bone-white student apartment seem less vast.) The people at Innisfree stocked two whole copies of this book and so I wanted to kiss everyone working that night.
“Symbiosis” is anthologized in Anne Waldman and Lisa Berman’s Civil Disobediences, a “talking book” of smart beautiful people writing about how poetics can engage with politics. (Lady Liberty is on the cover, blurred like she’s making a fist not holding a torch.) Peter Warshall, the Whole Earth catalog guy, he wrote this essay (available here on Google Books)—his “her” is Beatrix Potter, the writer and also, the first person to prove that lichen is the product of fungus and algae. That freaked out Scientific Society, because it was queer coupling and also, a woman proved it. Warshall tells Potter’s story like the cool uncle at holiday dinner, conversationally, and braiding in biologist Lynn Margulis, Gaia, Gay Liberation, and billions of years. The essay rambles but it holds, and it gives Peter Rabbit a hero’s welcome home. I am excited to read the other essays here—Civil Disobediences is about half a phone book but I’m lugging it home anyway, to keep on my bedside table where I can love and argue with it over the years.
Okay, here I’m cheating because I’ve read this book before. It’s one of my forever favorites though, it’s about waiting and romantic obsession in two knitted-up stories, one belonging to Margery Kempe, a failed fifteenth century saint who loved Jesus physically and passionately and is credited with writing the first autobiography. The other belongs to Glück, who wanted to write Margery’s story for decades but couldn’t until he fell in love himself, with a younger man named L. The book is hot and funny and sweet and taboo. “I’m Margery,” writes Glück, “following a god through a rainy city. The rapture is mine, mine the attempt to talk herself into existence.” “Mine the attempt to talk herself into existence,” what a killer gymnastic. Above is another paragraph I loop to myself aloud.
The front table at the library had two books, that I saw, that people wrote about their fathers’ deaths. One was Eleni Sikelianos’s heartstopping The Book of Jon, and the other is here, I, Afterlife by poet and hypnotherapist Kristin Prevallet, who writes about when her father killed himself in the car. It’s a powerful tug-of-war won by Prevallet, the survivor. One tension is her nimble poetry against the sudden vortex, another the way she braids clinical report language with elegy. I, Afterlife is brave and current, happening now. I read it twice in a row and went to class red-eyed. Another moment: “Never fall in love with a text that attempts to convince you that you are already dead. / Or that you are a vampire.”
This is a pamphlet of Frank O’Hara’s short reviews and “other art writings” from the 1950s, edited by Bill Berkson (who told us to look up George Schneeman too: here). Just like his poems, O’Hara’s reviews are vibrant and sincere—and capsule-sized, which means Robert DeNiro, Joseph Cornell, and Joan Mitchell can hang out together on one page. He uses words like “beautiful,” “brave,” and “passion” but his feet stay on the ground, in fact I copied a few reviews out longhand into my notebook to muscle up. Berkson includes a piece framing Jackson Pollock’s black and white paintings, a charming critique of David Smith’s sculpture (“circle them as you may, they are never napping”), and his own breezy, meaty afterword. The excerpt above is from Ingenue magazine 1964, from a feature where teenagers were encouraged to write in and ask a poet “What’s with modern art?” I love how seriously O’Hara replies. I love poets as critics, and teenagers asking important questions about art.
Okay, I’m cheating again because Eric Baus made me read this one, it was assigned for his Week Four Lecture (which was great; you can read the whole thing here). Poet Wieners studied at Black Mountain College with Charles Olson and Robert Creeley (whose bumper sticker was apparently “I saw delight”), and later on he worked at SUNY Buffalo. His poems are jazzy and sexy. I love how this one begins in the whirlpool—”The scene changes” is the first line, the second “Five hours later,” and then there’s pigeons, coughing, wings, squeaks. “I am engaged in taking away / from God his sound,” writes the speaker as he hides from a clock, echoing Krapp. What I really, really loved here was how nobody doubts the speaker’s eye, he just keeps zooming around the seacoast city, doing his best to be clear even though the reader will probably misunderstand, as readers do. (I read this poem on the bus on my way to Counterpath Books in Denver, to hear the amazing Julie Doxsee (an SAIC grad!), which is why the annotation’s a little wobbly.)
Because sometimes on lunchbreaks you don’t read, instead you walk downtown for coffee and sun and you bump into some guys playing D&D.